INDIANAPOLIS — Last year’s race was out of the ordinary, in more way than many have realized. The 104th running of the Indy 500 was the first in two decades without a female driver.
With a new push by IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to bring diversity to the paddock, one team is tipping the scales on gender both behind the wheel and off the track.
Paretta Autosport is fresh to the IndyCar scene but the muscle behind the name is well built and prepared to take on the challenge.
The team’s driving force, Beth Paretta, Team Principal and CEO, is no stranger to the automotive and motor sports industries.
Her unique career took Paretta from automotive dealerships, to retail operations and luxury brand management, to leading successful finishes for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles racing programs in several series, including NASCAR. IT has all led to this point: an IndyCar team of her own.
But, there is a big part of her team’s makeup that makes Paretta Autosport different from the rest.
“Paretta Autosport is a female forward team, we are probably going to be about 75% women on the team between the commercial side and the competition side,” Paretta explained.
Paretta is opening doors for women to tackle positions mostly held by men. It is also setting them up to continue their careers, if they choose, even off the track .
"If you look over my shoulder, that is STEM in action,” Paretta said in her team garage at IMS during testing. “That is, those are technical careers. Whether it is being an engineer, being a mechanic and these are non-traditional rolls for women. But these are careers, this is a skillset that leads to careers even off the race track. Our aerodynamicist used to work for Boeing. And you can be an aerodynamicist here and then go work for Boeing. I mean, these are real, that is a real thing.”
It is a concept that many women before Beth have strived to achieve in racing, something she keeps in mind while powering this idea to the forefront.
“This has extra scrutiny,” she said. “We have a lot of people watching us. And people are looking at us not like every other race team and I am acutely aware of that and I feel that there is a responsibility that comes with that.”
This concept of a “female forward” team got a push forward from none other than Roger Penske. The team is an extension of IndyCar and IMS’ “Race for Equality and Change” announced last summer. Team Penske is providing technical support to Paretta Autosport as they prepare for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“Putting a group of women together on a team is far more impactful, you can see us working together,” Paretta explained. “This is the only pro-sport where men and women, we can actually have co-ed teams and that is really exciting. And the fact that women and men can work together and show what that means. You know, you can think this is diversity for diversities sake but racing isn't, racing gives you the results, it gives you the feedback quickly. So, if we are always the last on the timing charts, then it doesn't work, you know. But if we can work hard and make progress then it shows that that progress is achievable.”
In Paretta’s No. 16 car, is Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro. She started in five Indy 500’s and was named the 2010 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. De Silvestro says this ride is more than a seat on the track.
“It is down to us to show that anything is possible and that is what I have always fought for throughout my career so I am kind of glad that it is happening in my lifetime and I am part of it,” De Silvestro said. “I think women belong everywhere. At the end of the day I don't think it matters if you are male or female, I think if you can get the job done you should get this opportunity.”
In it’s 105 years of running, only nine women, De Silvestro being one of them, have made it to the field of drivers on race day. Janet Guthrie became the first Oman only 44 years ago in 1977.
De Silvestro’s Chevrolet powered car is fueled by mostly women on Paretta’s team.
“What Beth has put together is really special,” De Silvestro said. “The girls that are on the team right now, they are really learning from the best out there and this opportunity is pretty amazing. Even myself, this car feels really special to be driving it. This opportunity is amazing and I think all of us realize that the chance we have and I think it just puts a spring in our step every time we walk down Gasoline Alley.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway feels just right for the 32-year-old driver, as the former “Swiss Miss” earned her new title right here in Indy.
“Actually here at this place,” De SIlvestro reflected. “In 2011 I was the practicing and I had a suspension failure in Turn 3 and had a pretty big crash with fire. And burned my hands pretty badly and two days later I qualified the car for the Indy 500 and the fans kind of gave it to me.”
Beth Paretta has attempted to get to this point, here at the Indy 500, once five years ago with Grace Autosport. But, the team pulled out at the last minute because they did not feel quite ready to be fully competitive.
Now, stronger and more prepared, Paretta is back with her female fueled team for another shot at the Borg Warner Trophy.
"To get to this point, it just took a lot of years of determination, tenacity, a little stubbornness and having great men in my corner that were always encouraging me, men and women, encouraging me not to give up and to make another go at it,” Paretta said. “It is way overdue. People wonder why we are talking about it at all but realistically, women are 51% of the population. We are not a minority. Women belong in racing because it is challenging and rewarding and fun and grueling and I mean, there are 33 cars on race day and how great is it to say that you were one of them. You know and then one day you get a championship ring.”